What Home Cooking Does That Restaurants Can’t
When we eat, the social context matters perhaps even more than the food.
As a professional food writer, I have always found joy and enlightenment in trying new foods. For both work and pleasure, I have had the privilege of eating at hundreds of the best restaurants in the world: Michelin-starred spots in Florence, Italy; bouchons in Lyon, France; shawarma stands in Amman, Jordan. Yet the most memorable meals of my life have unquestionably been in other people’s homes.
These people were typically friends, not professional chefs. Their dishes were, for example, the fesenjoon and potato tahdig (chicken in a pomegranate walnut sauce, rice with a crispy potato bottom) prepared by my Persian Jewish friend Tali for my birthday, and the pu pad pong karee (crab meat stir-fried with eggs, celery, and spices) that my former professor’s wife, Nok, made when my family and I returned to Philadelphia after years away. All of these tasted better than anything I have enjoyed in a restaurant.
This opinion is not just mine. I asked several friends—some chefs, others food writers, and many that are neither—and found that, given the choice between a meal at a top-notch restaurant and one in the home of a regular person who is a good cook, they would almost all choose the latter. I then polled my 21,000 or so Instagram followers. Most of the hundreds who responded had the same response: Their all-time favorite meals had been eaten in someone’s house.
This might sound counterintuitive. Restaurants have access to premium ingredients and specialized equipment, and employ impeccably trained professionals. And my polling methods were hardly scientific. But I think the love for home food that I and many others have emphasizes a deeper truth: Our emotions about what goes in our mouth are intertwined with our feelings about the person preparing the food, the conversation at the table, the cultural rituals around a dish’s consumption. When dining, the social context matters perhaps even more than the quality of the food.
It makes sense that the home is the site of our most cherished eating rituals—it is, after all, the original restaurant. Although records of public eating establishments date back millennia, most of these places, such as medieval inns and ancient Rome’s thermopolia, were intended for travelers or poorer people who didn’t have their own kitchens. Hosting at home, a ritual since prehistoric times, was how people maintained connections with friends and large extended families. Restaurants as we know them today—convivial places to both eat and socialize—are thought to date back only to 18th-century France (restaurer in French means “to restore”). These restaurants were intended for the wealthier classes; not until after the Industrial Revolution, when people began traveling more and moving to urban centers for work, did dining establishments become more accessible. By the 19th century, restaurants in the United States had begun to gain even more popularity, and, as the country’s middle class grew in the 20th century, dining out became a status symbol and a form of entertainment.
In America today, restaurants are everywhere, takeout apps are convenient, and the art of hosting at home is typically reserved for Thanksgiving dinners or holiday barbecues. Granted, preparing a group meal might require hours of labor, and not every weekday lunch must be a meaningful social event. But the benefits of communal meal times to physical and emotional well-being—such as lower rates of depression and higher academic performance—are widely documented. Still, the average American eats just three dinners a week with loved ones and spends more than half of their money that goes to food outside the home. Plenty of people see hosting a large group as a stressor.
Many of us are missing out on an experience that restaurants cannot provide. Dining out is transactional by nature: Bills are split, access depends on income, the time at your table is typically capped, and interaction with the people preparing the food tends to be nonexistent. In the home, the exchange happens in an entirely different way. You are not paying to consume a certain cuisine; you have invested in a relationship with someone and, as a result, are invited for a meal. You are not a customer; you are a guest—and that makes all the difference.
Case in point: Around Christmas one year, our Romanian friends, the Popescus, invited my family and me for dinner. One bite of the grandmother’s sarmale (brined cabbage leaves stuffed with a rice-and-meat mixture, then cooked with smoky bacon and tomatoes), and I felt privy to a world I had never before encountered. The flavors and textures were unexpected to my palate. For the first time in my life, cabbage was delicious. But most of all, my husband, my daughters, and I got to become part of the Popescus’ home life, sitting around a table eating a dish that, for as far back as the grandmother could remember, Romanians had been preparing for the holiday. We did not feel like mere cultural tourists. Rather, we were shown a level of generosity available only within the intimacy of friendship. We were the recipients of a gift, with no expectations of something in return.
The joy of cultural education, however, does not have to come from eating with someone from a different ethnic background. Foodways are so personal that even families in the same town can have their own imprint on dishes. I’d always hated okra: slimy, seedy, and, even when cooked in a traditional Arab tomato sauce, bland. But during my sophomore year in high school, I tried the okra stew of a friend’s mother. What a revelation to taste it spiked, with a fiery fermented-chili sauce and made with chicken instead of lamb. Two decades later, I continue to make okra stew the way I had it that day.
In Arabic, we have a term for the intangible element possessed by certain cooks that can turn a meal from great to exceptional: nafas. To have nafas is to have love for one’s guests and a desire to satisfy them with your best cooking—which is why the term is often used for home cooks, not chefs serving a restaurant of anonymous customers. We also have a saying in Arabic that translates to “Greet me, and you don’t need to feed me.” Because it’s almost unheard of to not feed your guests in our culture, what the adage really implies is that how you treat your visitors will affect how much they enjoy the food.
The host also gains something in all this. When I feed guests, I’m not only connecting them to my Palestinian culture; I’m reconnecting myself. For people like me who are living away from their home country, hosting can rekindle childhood memories and forge the kind of community that can be hard to find otherwise. Giving people around my table a place where they feel they belong leads me to find my own refuge. Not even the finest restaurant could compare to that.